ROME — An Iraqi refugee couple who met Pope Francis on Sunday say they used the opportunity to urge the pontiff to visit their country, an idea he’s floated himself as a gesture of concern for the violence there.
At the same time, the couple said they realize such a journey is too perilous right now, and said his willingness to get as close as possible during a November visit to Turkey is enough for the moment.
Mubarak and Aneesa Hano met the pope during a Vatican encounter on Sunday, saying they were representing all Iraqis driven from their homes by war.
“We came to this great encounter with the Holy Father because we wanted to tell him that we’re waiting for him in Iraq,” said Mubarak. “We need for him to give us courage, the strength to move on and to remain safe under the shelter of our faith,” he said.
The Hanos have been married for 51 years, and were taking part in a session for the elderly with both Pope Francis and also his predecessor, emeritus Pope Benedict XVI.
The couple, together with their 10 children and 12 grandchildren, fled Mosul earlier in the year and are currently living in a refugee camp set up in Erbil. They are part of the more than 120,000 Christians, Yazidis, and moderate Muslims who have left everything behind, fleeing from a self-proclaimed caliphate under the Islamic State.
“We’ve been Christians for 2,000 years,” Mubarak said. “We’ve built our churches, and two months ago we were banned from our own homes.”
The number of Iraqis seeking international asylum grows every day. According to a statement released Sept. 23 by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, in recent weeks requests to neighboring countries have increased sharply.
Some 120 Iraqis per day on average registered with the refugee agency in Jordan during August, up from 65 per day in June and July and just 30 per day in the first five months of this year.
Some 60 percent of those arriving in Jordan cited fears of jihadist militants linked to the Islamic State as the reason for their flight.
The Hanos told Crux that they remain hopeful of being able to return to their homes. They support American intervention in the fight against ISIS because they believe it’s the only way they’ll ever be able to get back.
“We’ve always lived there [Mosul],” said Mubarak.
“We have great hope and faith in our Western friends,” he said. “They can help us fight the horror that’s taken over our country. Before the US, France, and other friends intervened, this hope didn’t exist.”
Aneesa remained quiet during most of the interview. She answered only when the issue of women comes up.
“It’s difficult to be a mother under these circumstances,” she said. “We want to protect our children, particularly the girls. It’s hard to be a free girl when living in a refugee camp.”
Questioned about a possible disappointment if Pope Francis can’t go to the Kurdistan region between Turkey and Iraq when he visits Turkey next November, the Hanos said they know it’d be too dangerous.
“The fact that he’s going to the region, that he’ll be closer to us, it’s enough,” said Mubarak.
“When the children are in need, they look up to their parents. The Holy Father is our father. We’re looking up to him,” he said.